In my previous post, I wrote about the way in which betrayed partners can mistakenly think that they are using their voice effectively while actually speaking from a place of powerlessness. Despite significant efforts to try to communicate, many betrayed partners find that the copious amounts of talking, yelling and threatening they are engaged in are not creating any real change or increasing their sense of emotional safety.
The kind of threat-making, yelling, china-throwing tantrum I described in last week’s post is a response to trauma. Trauma fires up the threat center in the brain. When that occurs, the reasoning, logical, thoughtful part of the brain is no longer front and center. Instead, the “fight, flight, freeze” response takes over. When you are talking and acting from this highly charged emotional state, you are likely to say things you don’t mean and to threaten things you are unable or unwilling to follow up on. And if this happens repeatedly, as it sometimes does, it gets easy for your unfaithful partner to dismiss what you say as just another rant instead of a conversation to be taken seriously.
More importantly, when you are speaking from your trauma symptoms you are almost always reacting in the heat of the moment rather than responding from a grounded, thoughtful, anchored place. This type of reactionary pattern prevents you from figuring out what your truth is: what you really want and need from your spouse. This is why I think many betrayed partners unconsciously get stuck in this pattern. It is scary to identify what you need, state your truth out loud, and to stand by that truth, especially if you’ve never done that before and you are unsure what your partner will do in response.
It can feel easier to scream “I’m leaving you” then to sit down and decide if you want to leave or stay. The same is true with asking for what you need. It’s easier to scream, “I want you to do X, Y, and Z or else!” than it is to figure out if X, Y, and Z are actually the next right thing for you.
Sometimes, talking and arguing without anchoring yourself in truth gives you the feeling that you are doing something and making attempts to fix the relationship. It does not, however, help you to understand yourself and determine what you truly need. Nor does it hold you or hold your spouse accountable to the boundaries you set.
To do the hard work of figuring out your truth and then communicating that in a grounded manner is empowering. Not just for you, but for your relationship. Often in order to do this you need to take a moment and step back instead of immediately reacting. You need a bit of space to sort out what is happening and determine how you want to respond. It can be helpful to talk with your community of support – your therapist, your 12-step sponsor, a group therapy friend or a close family member – to sort through what you are feeling. Then, with their input, you can decide what the next right step might be.
Once you are anchored in the truth, you can calmly relate what you need to your spouse. For instance:
“I found a text message from a former affair partner on your phone yesterday. I am very angry and hurt that you are still in contact with her. I feel betrayed all over again. I also feel like you have wiped out all the progress we have made. I need you to schedule a couple’s therapy session for us this week so we can talk about this and determine what the next steps are. In the meantime, I need you to move out of the bedroom and give me some extra space, because I am very hurt and angry, and if I interact with you too much, I can’t control my emotions. There may be other things I need as we go along and I will let you know what those are as I figure them out, but for now this is what I need to have happen.”
It could be easy to read the paragraph above and feel slightly robotic and deadpan. That is not my intent. You can say all of this with great feeling, with tears and a lot of emotion if need be. The key is that you are clearly saying what you are feeling and what you need, and you mean it. You are not threatening to kick them out of the bedroom or to call the couples therapist, you are telling them that you need them to move out so you can feel safe, and you need a couples’ appointment to help you process what has happened. You have sorted out what will help you, and you are straightforwardly stating that to your spouse.
When you react out of your trauma symptoms, you present a whirling dervish of emotion and threats with no thoughtfulness or accountability behind it. When you pause, get help and anchor yourself in the truth, you present a thoughtful statement about what needs to happen next. One approach is disconnected, the other is grounded. One will not change anything, the other will.